Author Archives: Stephen Petrina

The Pendulum of Being

I stand corrected! The motivation for my past post, “Technology is not the problem. We are.” is such that I’m tired of how technology is the all-too-often/convenient scapegoat for the evils of our world. Swinging the “pendulum of being” in the opposite direction, however, offers a similarly limited and reductionist way of understanding. I’m guilty as charged for taking an overly-simplistic approach to thinking. I’ll try again….

Humans and technology have a very complex and co-constitutive relationship of mutual inter-dependence: as we make our technologies, they then make and shape who we are. We cannot fully understand our selves, others and shared worlds without knowledge of technology. Simultaneously, the more we want to learn about technology, the more we need to understand about being human.

Historically speaking, humans and technologies were generally distinguishable from each other. At present, however, technology is more like an extension of life, and it is far less clear to determine what it means to be human and what it means to be technology. For example, we can make prosthetic arms with skin that is sensitive to touch, we can create life by cloning and genetic manipulation, machines have intelligence, robots have emotions, and I often hear phrases like “all reality is virtual reality,” “I couldn’t live without my <insert technological device>,” “my whole life is on my computer,” and consider the human technology ofglobal consciousness.”

If we think of technology as an extension of life, then this brings forth more questions:

  • Are we human beings or human technologies? Hybrids?
  • Are those with cyborg capabilities the new “survival of the fittest”?
  • Are humans the “old machines” the outdated, unwanted, good-for-nothing technology?
  • Are humans on the trajectory of devolving into the life-sustaining body of technology (which cannot yet reproduced itself)? Our future humanity merely existing as a dispassionate standing reserve of human energy, a meaningless resource just waiting to be technologized?

While humans seem to consistently have the same flaws throughout history, what about the character of technology? Technology’s driving and demanding ways of relentless competition, calculative efficiency and optimized/maximized potential is evolving exponentially, at speeds and scales to the likes of which humans have never ever experienced before…. Our petal-to-the-metal, high-pressured, high-speed way of living reflects the human will to technology (technology fueled by human volition). Consider, for example, how it took several million years from the first chipped stone tool to the smelting of iron. It took just a mere 1000 yearsfrom the first iron to the hydrogen bomb. And in only a few decades, we have created the most energy-dense of all things in the universe (to our current knowledge), the thing that has more energy flowing through it (per gram, per second) than even a star… What is this thing? It’s the PC chip.

Humans (arguably steadfast over time in terms of character strengths and flaws) are part of this technological acceleration, this force that is MUCH greater and MORE dynamic than our species. The rise-progress-disaster-demise of past civilizations serves as a historied projection of the past upon the future, warning that technology is like a dangerous child that the human family has let loose on our planetary home… As the pendulum of being swings, we’re seeing the consequences of human technological evolution all around us. Technology is not the problem. Humans are not the problem. It’s a family matter and the issues are relational. //PJ

Technology is not the problem. We are.

Recently I was interviewed by The Experimental Engagement Manifesto (an investigation into how to motivate, engage and inspire people to do good). One of the questions was: “What surprizes you about people?” The first answer that came to mind was “I’m surprized by how people suffer so much and are unable to be happy.”

Upon second thought, what causes this suffering and lack of happiness? Why are our media full of tragic stories about liars, cheaters, stealers, murderers, corrupters, bullies, and abusers (drugs, sex and other self-destructive habits)? Why can’t we get along with others? Even our own families and friends betray us. Our shared world is full of poverty, AIDS, sickness, self-hatred, anger, hypocrisy, injustice, pollution, garbage…

We are unequivocally out of control. We are putting dangerous demands on all natural systems, especially the air, water, earth and our very being (the elements of life as we know it). How long can this go on before our civilization crashes? The 20th century marks a time of “runaway-train” growth in human desires, human population, human self-centeredness, human addictions, human consumption and human waste… The 21st century marks a “milieu technique,” the digital age, the unleashing of the powerful force of technology upon our people and our planet. Is technology humanity’s saving grace or its suicide machine?

Kevin Kelly is an expert on Technology’s Epic Story. He argues that technology is the cosmic force that gives humanity the potential for difference, diversity, options, choices, opportunities, possibilities and freedoms:

“The origins of technology was not in 1829, but was actually at the beginning of the Big Bang, and at that moment the entire huge billions of stars in the universe were compressed. The entire universe was compressed into a little quantum dot, and it was so tight in there was no room for any difference at all. After the Big Bang, what we have is the potential for differences, diversity, options, choices, opportunities, possibilities and freedoms. Those are all basically the things that technology bring us.”

While Kevin Kelly is enthusiastic about technology, which he defines as an extension of life, others view technology as a death sentence. Technology is, in many ways, today’s convenient scapegoat for human evil and human suffering (kids are playing too many violent video games, grown-ups are manipulated by media, family togetherness has been replaced by the tv, toxic waste is destroying the biosphere, genetically modified foods are causing cancer, etc.). We are scared and we want someone or something to be accountable. We blame technology (digital /nano /cybernetic /information /other) as we are unwilling to blame ourselves for not knowing how to solve our problems and for not knowing how to control ourselves. Technology is not the real source of the world’s suffering. WE ARE. The problem is in us. And thanks to the internet, our problems are staring us right in the face, in full-on illumination, demanding that we notice that which we don’t want to see (problems which were always and already present). Ironically, we want to accuse technology for what it reveals rather than forcing ourselves to contend with what it makes known.

Each time civilization repeats itself, so it is said, the price goes up. All past civilizations wore out their welcome from nature and collapsed (the stone age, bronze age, golden age, iron age and other ages). Maybe the invention of civilization is the problem? In this Digital Age, are we repeating our past patterns of progress, disaster and demise? Is our fate is in our hands, our minds, our hearts or our technologies?

How do we control ourselves, stop human suffering and live happily ever after?


Le Penseur

Ever wonder what technology is thinking? Search Google Images to find:

[Le Penseur 1] “I exist because you made me”

[Le Penseur 2] “I am this space and its metal”

[Le Penseur 3] “I am what I am because of you”

[Le Penseur 4] “I know not of my existence except when you use me”

[Le Penseur 5] “I am here because you need me”

[Le Penseur 6]I am you and you are me”

// Credit to my good friend Barbara C. for textual technological thinking excerpts.

Bushpunk Technology

What happens when technological ingenuity is combined with the enthusiastic do-it-yourself African culture?


Read about the inspired awesomeness of these Bushpunk Technologists:

In this photo: 3 Masters of Innovation & their Inventions

Meet Barbie the Pink Computer Engineer!


Amazing, it only took until 2010 to get a Barbie with a laptop! Though I’ve never met a professional woman (or any woman) who wears funky pink glasses to coordinate with her shiny pink computer, smart phone and wrist watch, Barbie designers flagrantly boast that they: “worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to ensure that accessories, clothing and packaging were realistic and representative of a real computer engineer.”

Not only does Geek Chic Barbie have an official fact sheet, to further experience the reality of being a computer engineer, the doll comes with a special code to unlock exclusive online game content on Barbie’s Digital World. I wonder if Blondie has one of those reality-probing holes in her body (like in the Matrix)? Barbie could use a real-life-lesson in the beauty of being a whole woman (not a wide-eyed, hollow-headed objectification of the over-sexualized and stereotyped female figure) in a technologized world where hot pink laptops do not win the popular vote.

Like it or not, however, Barbie is a popular culture icon and a role model for girls. According to Mattel, 90% of girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie doll and has 18 million registered users worldwide. As Nora Lin, President, Society of Women Engineers affirms:

“All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers — like girls — are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination. As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can turn their ideas into realities that have a direct and positive impact on people’s everyday lives in this exciting and rewarding career.”

Barbies new slogan: “I can be…”

Avatars Fear to Tread

Avatar: what a thought-provoking movie about consciousness, energy, being, believing, seeing, touching… embracing the wilderness of “being-in-creation” and “being-in-the-more-than-human-world.” An Imax 3D experience that juxtaposes human greed and the artifices of techne with nature’s nourishing, all-renewing and all-restoring energies.

The storyline in Avatar is simple, rather the same-old-same-old story of colonization and exploitation that has occurred countless times on earth, and now on the fertile world of Pandora. Pandora is breathtaking with “floating” Hallelujah Mountains, bioluminescence in its flora & fauna, and a collective consciousness existing within the neural network of the forest. The Na’vi, the dominant species, have a radical respect for the equality of all sentient life forms, ecological awareness, spiritual virtues and a deep sacredness. My Avatar does not fear to tread in this elysian mental paradise.

A sad, sad contrast to the hungry, greedy, overpopulated, sick, ambitious and competitive matrix in which humans dwell and where “Angels Fear to Tread” (G. Bateson & M. C. Bateson, 2004, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred). Why do we suffer so? Why are we unable to live responsibly, compassionately and lovingly? Why do we overfill our hearts and minds with self (and stuff for self) such that we have no room to love anyone/anything else? The seductive entrapments of narcissism, consumerism and hedonism keep us incessantly busy “looking after #1” such that we simply have no time to be still, no desire to listen… and no ability to see.

Upon second thought, we get glimpses of awareness in movies that cost over $300,000,000 to make with a further $150,000,000 for marketing and promotion to ensure that “we see”. With over $2 billion in revenue (so far), Avatar’s commercial success indicates that we are (at least) looking whilst being entertained. Ironically (or tragically) we need theatre tickets, surround sound and 3D glasses “to see” what it means “to be”.

We are one human family living together in a shared earthly home: it’s not mine nor yours, but ours. Mother Nature, Father God, sisters, brothers and sentient others: “I see you.”

Once upon a Nietzsche…

In a haunting story that has always remained with me, Friedrich Nietzsche tells:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly – as though the world’s axis turned within it…
Has Nietzsche described our fate? What do we really know? How do we come to know it? What knowledge is of the most worth (and for what or for whose purposes)? What are the tensions between the knower, known and the unknown? Where does knowledge reside? To what extent is human knowledge made rather than uncovered? My cluster of questions, and subsequent return to Nietzsche’s story, is provoked by a colleague urging me to read Deleuze’s doctoral thesis, in which I’m struck by/stuck on this passage:
How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write. To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow – or rather, to make it impossible.
Nietzsche’s storyline in “Truth & Lies In a Nonmoral Sense” reveals that “knowing” does not proceed logically in any case, suggesting that all the material within and with which we build our beings, our stories and our truths are derived from what Nietzsche calls “never-never land.” According to Nietzsche, knowledge is most certainly not derived from the essence of things as everything arises “from the equation of unequal things.”
The margins of my mind are blurring as I find myself trapped in a perpetuating purgatory of knowing, but not knowing… with no easy way out of my boundlessly boundaried state of being between “knowing that I don’t know” and “unknowing that which I know.” Proud, promiscuous words are tempting, but not telling… Help!!

Totally like whatever, you know?

A poem by Taylor Mali:

In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences – so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not –
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

Biology of Knowledge… Biology of Love?

How is life related to the mind?
Is mind continuous with life?
How do we know what we know?
What’s love got to do with it?

Maturana & Varela bring forth these questions in The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987). They believe that “living is sense making” and that “all life is cognitive.” While these phrases don’t have the popular power of “cogito ergo sum,” they are good reminders that cognition and life are co-emergent and inseparable. All experiences change the brain and in turn, our level of brain functioning shapes the content of daily experiences.

If you are curious about the mind and the way that it works, The Tree of Knowledge is very readable. “Knowing how we know,” is the main subject of this book, which outlines a unified scientific conception of mind, matter and life. Maturana & Varela’s view of cognition has important social and ethical implications as they assert the only world humans can have is the one that we create together through the actions of our coexistence (p. 248):

“We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth. If we have succeeded in bringing the reader around to this reflection, this book will have achieved its second purpose.”

In addition to their beautiful conclusion, Maturana & Varela (p. 246-247) express how:

This [love] is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness... To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet from what we have said in this book it should be apparent that such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots.

So, to live as human is not simply to know and feel, but also to love. Life and cognition are inseparable, you can’t have one without the other, and love brings forth all of the diverse possibilities for our tender true humanity to be.


Ways of Being-In-The-World


[similes of being]

BLOCKHEADS: Like letters carved in rock

Blockheads are rigid in thought and action, accepting only their way, unable to see beyond their impenetrable blocked ego. Blockheads live a hard life on the wrong side of the metaphorical door, shutting them out of privilege, opportunity, awareness, softening and feeling. They freeze feelings and turn ideas into stone with their dogmatic ideals that require absolute obedience. Their one-sided ways, the Buddha says, are like letters carved in rock, for they cannot see beyond the blocked entrance. They cannot move beyond their blocked ego so when they act, they act out blindly and cruelly.

These characters live among us today in the form of White supremacists, political terrorists, rapists, gay bashers, hate mongers, and at times: me and you. How do we unfreeze our blockheaded habits and drill our stubborn consciousness? These are not heady acts: too many of us live inside our heads, far too often. How do we see and hear a trickling of the sand through the rock of unexamined and habituated beliefs?

SPLITHEADS: Like letters written in sand

Splitheads do not open the metaphorical door to more awakened paths, however, they have glimpses into alternative sides of themselves. While not impenetrable, they allow “the social self” to take the place of “the authentic self” until the difference between the two is blurred. Splitheads are playing a part in a script written by their social roles and habits, living according to others’ expectations, forgetting who they are, sleepwalking through life, and not looking for cracks of awareness in the rock..

FOUNTAINHEADS: Like letters written in running water

Fountainheads are neither this nor that, but coming and going, like Bakhtin’s mode of linguistic homelessness (where no one ideal is grasped). Fountainheads do not retain their passing thoughts and their minds are always clear: the fluid self, freely moving, living energy, with mental alertness, inner strength and mindfulness.

The Teaching of Buddha (Tokyo: Kosaido Printing, 1990)
Like Letters in Running Water: A Mythopoetics of Curriculum (Mary Aswell Doll, 2000)